Guard Soldiers Face Courts-Martial for Abuses

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Five California Army National Guard soldiers face courts-martial for allegedly abusing detainees in Iraq. Melissa Block talks with Scott Gold, Houston bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, about the circumstances surrounding the alleged abuse, the battalion's public complaints that they were improperly trained, and their controversial and charismatic leader - who may take the blame.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Five soldiers with the California Army National Guard will face courts-martial for the alleged abuse of Iraqi detainees. The abuse allegedly includes the use of a stun gun on an Iraqi, who was handcuffed and blindfolded. The Los Angeles Times reports that an Army spokesman in Iraq has confirmed that the five soldiers to be court-martialed are all members of Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the National Guard's 184th Infantry Regiment. The company's based in Fullerton, California. Scott Gold is covering this story for the LA Times.

And, Scott, tell us please what more details you've been able to learn about this alleged abuse. What happened and when?

Mr. SCOTT GOLD (Los Angeles Times): This took place in March shortly after this battalion arrived in Iraq. It's our understanding that these detainees were initially captured at a power plant outside of Baghdad, which was heavily fortified and a key strategic site. A stun gun appears to have been used on detainees, including one man who had been handcuffed and blindfolded. And that incident was captured on video, which eventually found its way into the hands of battalion commanders and helped launch this portion of the investigation.

BLOCK: And apart from that one incident captured on videotape, anything more that's known about what other abuse may have occurred?

Mr. GOLD: Well, the allegations of abuse are the most serious portion of the investigation, but they represent merely one prong of the investigation. Military officials are looking into allegations that soldiers from this battalion charged unauthorized, off-the-books rent to service-oriented businesses that were operating on one Army base in Iraq. A group of soldiers were even accused of forcing Iraqi nationals to move a dead dog out of the road because the soldiers were concerned that insurgents might be using the carcass to conceal an improvised bomb. The results of all of this are still unfolding. So far, as you said, there are five soldiers facing courts-martial.

BLOCK: And, again, National Guards are not regular Army.

Mr. GOLD: Well, that's right. It's important to keep in mind that all of this is related, to some extent, to the difficult circumstances that this war is being fought under. At one point earlier this summer nearly half of the US troops in Iraq were either National Guard or Reserve personnel. The situation with this battalion among the soldiers is now widely seen, right or wrong, as an `us. vs. them' situation. The `us' would be the National Guard, and the `them' would be the active-duty Army that is leading the investigation into the alleged misconduct. And it's a very tense situation.

BLOCK: Scott, the identities of the soldiers who are going to be court-martialed have not been revealed. Do you have any idea of their rank, of how high up these charges might go?

Mr. GOLD: The highest-level personnel who's been affected by this is the battalion commander, Patrick Frey, who's a very interesting character to emerge from this situation. He's a veteran of three wars, a poet, a special education teacher in Northern California and a beloved educator there when he's not off commanding a 700-soldier battalion in Iraq. There are many soldiers who remain fiercely loyal to him and say they would follow him anywhere. Others are not convinced that he is such a great leader. Some have described him to the Los Angeles Times as an eccentric egomaniac who insists on carrying a small hatchet wherever he goes, even using it to, quote, "knight soldiers" that he's promoting. And he remains under suspension.

BLOCK: There's another wrinkle here, which is that this battalion based in California had earlier complained about poor training that they'd received. What are you hearing from folks in that battalion? Does that bear, in any way, on these charges?

Mr. GOLD: They do see a direct connection--I should say some of them do see a direct connection. That is not a widely or universally held belief. But, yes, this same battalion did cause a stir last year when they went public in the Los Angeles Times with allegations that their preparation for combat in Iraq was inadequate and sloppy. The soldiers had a range of concerns, largely that they had received very little of what they call theater-specific training, or training that would prepare them for the reality of combat in Iraq.

BLOCK: Would there also be people, though, in the company who would say, `We know right from wrong, and these soldiers are bad apples. They were doing the wrong thing'?

Mr. GOLD: Absolutely. A number of soldiers have begun expressing their frustration in e-mails to friends and family that they, too, have, to some degree, fallen victim to a few bad apples. They point out that 97 percent or so of the soldiers in this battalion have been accused of no wrongdoing. Many of these soldiers are carrying out very dangerous combat missions every day. They were apparently responsible for capturing 250 insurgents in July alone, and that, right or wrong, has received very little attention compared to the circumstances that a few of these other soldiers have found themselves in.

BLOCK: Scott Gold, thanks very much.

Mr. GOLD: Thank you.

BLOCK: Scott Gold, with the Los Angeles Times, reporting on five members of the California Army National Guard who will face courts-martial for allegedly abusing Iraqi detainees.

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